Minotaur, 2009, $24.99, 292 pages, ISBN 978-0-312-56670-8
Waaay back in the early 1960’s, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and regular gasoline was 32.9 cents per gallon at my dad’s Texaco station on Main Street in Grahamsville, New York, a high school teacher named Manville B. Wakefield sparked an interest in American History in me that has remained all my life. It was the centennial of the Civil War and “Wake,” as he preferred being called, was involved in writing a book, with Inez George Gridley and a couple of others about the 143rd New York Volunteers, the infantry regiment from Sullivan County. He was the driving force, chair of the county centennial commission, and responsible for every element of this beautiful and now rare, book. Each illustration was hand drawn by him, including the map that graces both the front and end pieces. It was called Brass Buttons and Leather Boots, and if you happen to own a copy, you are indeed fortunate. Number 222 of 2000 is one of my most cherished books. Wake, however had a wide range of interests, another of which was the steam railroads, which were quickly passing from the scene at the time . . . and he infected me with his enthusiasm for those as well. Wake went on to write other books about the area, with canal boats and steam trains as the subject. I went away to college and the rest of my life, while sadly, Wake died only a few years later of a heart attack at the age of fifty . . . a great loss to us all for such a talented individual.
My interest in history grew over the years and my passion became the twentieth century, with emphasis on the Prohibition era, the Great Depression and World War II. So when I found a novel that takes place in Oklahoma during World War II, with German prisoners of war, dust bowl Okies, a murder most foul . . . and it all takes place in the train yards at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway depot in Waynoka, Oklahoma . . . I couldn’t wait to get a copy, read and review it. The Yard Dog by Sheldon Russell is about the death of Spark Dugan, a homeless bum who lives in a shanty beneath a railroad trestle and picks coal for a living. When he’s found dead under the wheels of a reefer waiting to be re-iced by a group of German POW’s who’ve been contracted to slide 300 pound blocks of ice into the hoppers on top of them, Hook Runyon is called to investigate. Hook is a disillusioned, one-armed “yard dog,” or “railroad bull,” a badge carrying employee of the railroad whose principal duties are to arrest pick-pockets and throw bums off of railroad property. He’s a member of a private police force and his word is law on the railroad’s turf . . . much like the old BWS police on the reservoirs in upstate New York. Hook lives in a caboose in the railyards and spends his free time drinking the local shine and buying first edition books at local auctions, while trying to overcome his personal bitterness about the loss of his arm. But Hook, even with a total lack of training, turns out to be a relentless sleuth. In the face of increasingly stiff pressure from his boss to close the case and hostility in his workplace, as well as at the nearby prison camp where the German prisoners are incarcerated, he doggedly pursues his hunch that Spark Dugan was not an accidental death, but was in fact murdered. It’s a rousing good, fast-paced read full of trains, interesting characters, historical details and lots of action. It’s highly entertaining and the most fun you can have and still keep all you clothes on.